Oct 28, 2009
Graduation 101

While most of us are past the days of final exams and report cards, no one is ever too old to learn something new. Sometimes a little refresher course is all that’s needed to perk up sales for any category, and one category that is growing by leaps and bounds is that of graduation – so much so that its now being referred to by many retailers as “graduation season.”

So to prepare you for “graduation season,” we have created a study guide to help you sell to the head of the class. Ready for a little “true or false”?

The best time to get ready for graduation season is the same for every store – April or May.
In January, the staff at Party Pizzazz in Manitowoc, Wisc., starts making phone calls to local schools, asking for that year’s class colors, numbers for the graduating class and if they can place flyers in the office area for students to take. These flyers promote Party Pizzzz as a one-stop party shop and include a coupon for the graduates and their parents.

“At this time, we prepare Mylar orders and stock up on latex school colors,” said Kim Martell of Party Pizzazz. “We also stock up on school-colored solids. Right after Easter we bring out all the graduation supplies. Early April through August is our graduation season, and then we bring back-to-school out front for homecoming.”

It really depends on your area, as some customers may want to see product out right after Christmas.
“That’s when high school graduation customers want to see things here in Hawaii,” said Linda Fuller of Orchid Isle Party Supplies. “I keep the boxes packed where I can get to them easily and try to order new items right after Christmas.”

At Paper Moon Event and Wedding Specialists in Midland, Mich., they begin displaying graduation products the first of April, with the majority of sales generated in May until the end of June.

“Most graduation revenue comes from sales for high school graduation parties,” said Sue MacKellar of Paper Moon. “Although we do have colleges in our area, we have found that college graduation parties are very limited and sales are mostly cards and balloons.”

For Adriane Brandenburg at Fun Party & Wedding Services in Shawnee, Kan., she finds it helpful to keep graduation out year round, as there are a number of people who graduate in December. Jill Shortreed of Party & Play Promotions in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. agreed, saying that a small graduation section/school spirit area set up year round sets them apart from other stores.

It’s more important to carry school color-specific product than dated product.
While most retailers know it’s necessary to carry a certain amount of year-specific product, many order cautiously, as they don’t want to be left with a large amount to clearance out.

“With the current economy, we noticed that parents have been looking for decorations that may be re-useable for other children,” MacKellar said. “Because of this, year-specific merchandise has declined and we are limiting our selection of these items for 2010. This will also enable us to carry over our generic grad items for the December college graduations.”

Martell agreed, adding that they have 32 feet or area just for graduation with all the school colors keep year round.

“We purchase a little dated item – enough to have some, but not so much that we have it left over,” Martell said. “Left over dated inventory is reduced come Aug. 1, and anything that can be used the following year is packed away, inventoried and stored. Notes on what to order are placed with the stored inventory, with easy access for the following year.”

The biggest graduation seller for most party stores is wearables.
“Balloons and anything color related are our largest sellers,” Shortreed said. “The ‘Just Write’ congratulations and graduation balloons are a strong seller for us, as the kids like to see their names on the balloons.”

And on an average Saturday in May, Brandenburg said they inflate about 700-800 balloons.

“We take balloon orders from our customers, so they tell us ahead of time what they want and when,” she said. “Customers love that they don’t have to wait for their balloons to be filled – they just grab them and go.”

The key to increased sales is effective merchandising and display.
This may seem like an obvious answer, but there are stores that relegate graduation products to a miscellaneous aisle. The minute a customer walks in the door, they should see the product. At Party Pizzazz, anything dated is hung on the end cap facing the door, so it’s one of the first items they see. Mylars are attached to the shelving, latex bouquets sit on the floor and graduation pinatas are hung above.

“I don’t do my merchandising by school colors, but rather I do all of one kind of item placed with the like items,” Martell said. “That way they can look at a banner and see all the different colors it comes in. For the more sophisticated grad, blacks, silvers, and golds are also placed together. For those that want to stay away from school colors, I offer some of the untraditional graduation patterns.”

If you have leftover dated graduation product, you’re stuck with it.
Along with putting it on clearance, Martell has come up with another idea for that year-specific product that didn’t sell – save it for class reunions.

“Since we have been in business since 2004, I now have some items for five-year class reunions,” she said. “At least this way, if they come in looking for class reunion ideas, I can say I have some unique options and hopefully sell through some stuff.”

Adding unique services can set your store apart.
“Paper Moon’s extensive rental products give us a unique edge and separate us from the big-box stores and the dollar stores,” MacKellar said. “We set up in-store displays combining the rental items with the retail items so customers can compare and combine the two looks. This often leads to increasing our sales ticket.”

MacKellar said that once customers are in the store and can see what is offered, they tend to buy more for convenience and service and worry less on the price. To accommodate, they stock all their own linens, chair covers and other party rental items so customers can experience one-stop shopping.

And in addition to their purchase of disposable items, they can rent their tables, chairs, chair covers, chaffers, canopies, cutlery, glassware, drink machines, chocolate fountains, linen tablecloths, napkins, skirting and card boxes.

Dana Schleicher, president of Palm Tree Paperie, recommends that independent retailers focus on things that big-box retailers and mass merchants are unable to offer, such as personalized products.

“Personalized products are a fantastic way to differentiate from big-box stores,” Schleicher said. “A gift that is customized with a name or monogram adds value in the eyes of both the giver and the receiver. Take it a step further and make your store known for its fast personalization service.”

So how did you do? Hopefully you can write your own book on successful graduation sales next year and share some of your tips. Until then, keep learning and you’re sure to make the grade.

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